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The 5 biggest myths about exercising during pregnancy

Congratulations!  

You’ve found out you’re pregnant – cue birth announcements, bump photos, gender reveal party plans, and nursery designs. Start the countdown to birth on your latest app and quickly realise you suddenly have questions… 

… a LOT of questions.

Hmmm.

The information on your first app rivals what’s on your second app, and what you heard your cousin went through, which is different again to what your mother-in-law experienced and WHAT THE HECK IS LIGHTNING CROTCH?! The awe and joy you originally felt have brought an uninvited guest to the party: confusion.

I know the feeling and have heard all too often the common questions; 

• Can I still eat cheese?  

• Will we poke the baby when we have sex?  

• Will I ever sleep through the night without needing to pee again?  

• Is exercise even safe? Won’t squatting make the baby fall out? (yes, it’s been asked)

Well, I can tell you right now that whilst I’m no expert in prenatal sex (for the record, no I don’t think you poke the baby) I can help you with one area that’s going to give you some daily confidence – your exercise regime. Plus let’s face it, in your current circumstances you’re probably going to spend more time exercising than you will in any sort of intimate bedroom manner (a woman can only handle so much cardio, am I right?).

With the number of superstitions, outdated medical advice, false claims, and chat rooms out there, it’s no wonder you’re finding it hard to get a straight answer regarding prenatal exercise. So, let’s cut to the chase: not only is it safe, it’s extremely beneficial for your pregnancy. Regular physical activity during pregnancy has been shown to improve or maintain physical fitness, help with weight management, reduce the risk of gestational diabetes in obese women, and enhance psychological well-being.

Let’s address some exercising myths for you right now.

Myth 1: You have to monitor your heart rate during exercise

Many years ago, it was thought that pregnant women should monitor their heart rates during exercise to prevent overexertion causing any risks to the developing baby. This was something thought up by some very intelligent people who forgot one simple fact: women’s bodies are beyond incredible! Modern medicine has now proved something we’ve known for a long time – that we are extremely adaptable beings (uh hello…growing human life within and all that). Even our cardiovascular system has evolved the means to cope with the extra workload pregnancy places on us. So no, you don’t need to monitor your heart rate. Unless it makes you feel fancy, then by all means you do your thang girl. 

The takeaway: Easy one here – put down the monitor and monitor your rate of perceived exhaustion instead. You can read more about RPE here

Myth 2: You can’t run during pregnancy

For those of you who currently already enjoy a run, you’ll be familiar with the endorphins and stress-relieving benefits of feeling the breeze as you pound the pavement. It can be a natural antidote to the daily stressors we face, so as you enter pregnancy and the rollercoaster of emotions you’ll endure in the first trimester, it’s not something you’ll want to sacrifice. Taking away that relieving run could very well mean the difference between being a glowingly, calm, pregnant goddess and emotionally eating your way through another tub of ice cream.  

Putting the emotional benefits aside, running improves cardiovascular fitness levels which frankly you’re going to need to push that baby earthside. So if you were a seasoned runner before pregnancy*, there should be no reason you can’t continue with your training.

The takeaway: Listen to your body! You may find yourself easily out of breath in your first trimester, but you will likely feel better in your second trimester. As your beautiful belly expands in your third trimester, normal pregnancy hormones start relaxing your joints so you might want to switch those unstable outdoor beach runs for a running track or another stable surface. The pregnant form, whilst glorious, is not the most streamlined and aerodynamic shape when it comes to balance.

*Note I’ve mentioned those who are already runners – pregnancy is probably not the time to start your running career.

You can find a comprehensive breakdown of exercising during pregnancy here

Myth 3: You can’t lift weights during pregnancy

Resistance training can help reduce the time spent in labour and delivery. Even if you stopped reading after that, I’m sure I’ve already given you enough reason to keep up the weights – because who wants to be pushing longer than they need to?! However, there are also other benefits for Mamas-to-be such as preserving lean body mass and improving bone density to name a couple. 

But wait!  

Before you run out and start stacking the weight on your squat rack (you strong woman, you), there are some adjustments you will need to make.  

The Takeaway: The obvious precaution you can take is to avoid movements where anything can come in contact with your glorious baby bump. But you may also need to avoid lifting anything too heavy. Yes, yes, I know what you’re wondering “how heavy is too heavy?”

Introducing the Valsalva Breath Guide! 

Valsalva breathing is where you take a big deep breath in, filling your abdomen to stabilise your core. However, when we have a cherubic little house guest onboard these deep Valsalva breaths can put added pressure right where you don’t need it: the pelvic floor. There’ll be time again for Valsalva breathing when your toddler starts racing away from you in a park, I assure you. In the meantime, stay away from loads that require you to brace down and create intraabdominal pressure. Dropping to lighter weights and doing higher reps is a great way to maintain your strength. This video provides a great breakdown on how to connect your breathing with your pelvic floor. You can make an appointment with your Women’s Health Physio if you want a little more guidance. 

You can also read more about strength training guidelines here

Myth 4: You can’t do abdominal exercises

It’s unsurprising to hear pregnant women should avoid sit ups, however, don’t take this to mean you should neglect the area entirely. A strong core has been shown to improve postpartum rehabilitation and delivery outcomes. As your belly expands and your abdominal muscles begin to separate (a healthy and normal process) and your organs relocate (a weird and normal process), you will need to make adjustments to your training. First, you should be aware of the potential implications lying on your back may have on you and your little bean. In the past, women have been advised not to lie on their backs. Some physicians suggested this was because the weight of the baby could restrict blood flow to the mother’s heart. Some of the recommendations say that women should avoid lying on their back for long periods of time after week 16. The problem is, “long periods of time” is subjective. Are we talking one minute? Ten minutes? No seriously, how long are we talking? More recent research suggests that if lying on your back is comfortable, it doesn’t cause lightheadedness or tingling in the legs and you are able to breathe freely, you should be okay to lie on your back. These guidelines are constantly changing, and we don’t have a clear consensus. My recommendation is if you want to be ultra-safe, you can avoid lying on your back after 24-28 weeks or you can monitor for the above symptoms and adjust if you need to.

Second, you should avoid any exercises that cause ‘coning’ of your abdominals (think planks, hanging leg raises, and some CrossFit moves such as toes-to-bar and knees-to elbow). Coning looks like, well a cone. One that runs down your linea alba which is the line of muscle that extends from your sternum to your pubic bone. Coning indicates improper intraabdominal pressure and can lead to worsening abdominal separation post-birth.

The Takeaway: Stick to stomach exercises that don’t require you to lie on your back or cause your muscles to cone. Think of movements like Bird dogs, Cat/Cow, and Farmer’s Carries. And we’re not just talking in the gym here, unfortunately, the usual way to start our day is to sit up out of bed. Well, scratch that idea and learn to perfect a fancy roll-out sideways instead. Oh yes. And whilst you may feel like a bloated seal doing this, your tummy muscles will thank you in your postpartum journey! 

You can learn more about abdominal separation here

Myth 5: Peeing your pants during pregnancy is completely normal

I’ll set the scene: it’s the middle of the night. You’re alone on your knees, hurling your bland dinner into the toilet whilst trying to perform the tightest Kegel known to mankind. I see you Mama bear; you are a true warrior and if by miraculous intervention you didn’t simultaneously wet yourself, I applaud your strength. Look, when a tiny human takes up residence right above our bladder a few accidents are expected. But if your workout has you routinely peeing through your panty liner you may want to assess some of your movements as it’s a good sign there is too much pressure on the pelvic floor. 

Common culprits of urinary incontinence during a training session involve those in the high impact category (think box jumps, squat jumps, double-unders, and running). And if you’re resorting to a Valsalva breath (see above) while lifting, this may also cause urinary incontinence. It’s an issue that holds many women back from fully participating in sports or activities due to fear or shame, but it needn’t be. If you find you’re dialing back your efforts in the gym in fear of losing control of your bladder, it’s time to break free and make some changes. That’s no way to live Mama. 

The Takeaway: The fix may be as simple as swapping out your plyometric movements for movements that keep your feet firmly on the ground. Examples include bodyweight squats, box step ups, and a brisk walk. But if stress incontinence continues to be an issue for you, I would encourage you to see a Women’s Health Physio and have your pelvic floor assessed.

Final note  

Every woman and every pregnancy are unique. From vomiting hourly to never, there’s a vast scale you can fall within during your own pregnancy. With that in mind, the above recommendations are clean, simple, and generalised, so to be certain your particular pregnancy doesn’t have specific limitations. There are some conditions (such as gestational diabetes, morbid obesity, and chronic hypertension to name a few) where an unsupervised exercise program poses a risk, however provided with suitable health professional monitoring, an exercise program would be of benefit. Be sure to discuss your exercise plans with your OB/GYN or other health care provider before commencing if you fall within this scope or if you are concerned.

I hope this helps you be the boss baby-Mama you want to be and start your postpartum journey with the best tool available: a functioning, healthy body.  

You got this.


Expert Author: Sheridan Skye Wallace

I’m a wife and Mum to a beautiful daughter named Elle. On the days that I am not coaching women, you will find me working in the Intensive Care Unit as a Registered Nurse.

My world changed when I became a mum to my gorgeous Elle and I became encouraged more than ever to support and guide women. If I can be that permission granter in your life that whispers: “you got this” while the rest of the world is provoking doubt… then I have fulfilled my duty as a coach.

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